As waiting went, three days was almost impossibly short. Devlin and I had spent entire weeks idling in various European countries while a potential contact took steps to secure the area and not every one of those occasions had ended with an actual meeting. That the Texan was able to clear his schedule on such short notice was a point in his favor; added to the other positive marks I’d given him for professionalism and personality, I found myself thinking that a purely social visit with the man wouldn’t be entirely unpleasant.
That said, deducting three days from my thirty day time limit was a tough pill to swallow. There would likely be other delays and pauses while we tried to work out the identities of the remaining members of the Community, to say nothing of how long a concerted campaign against the Mouse might take. When my ransomware expired and my full network – with all of its banking information, aliases, and my real name – lay bare to the Mouse’s machinations, it wouldn’t matter how close we’d come to taking him down. That, as the saying went, would simply be that.
There was nothing to do for it, though. If the Texan wanted to meet in three days, I’d simply have to find something productive to do with the free time. Normally, I spent down time working on programs for an upcoming job, pursuing leads, or idly monitoring the information returned by my automated web crawlers. I couldn’t use those, for obvious reasons, and there wasn’t exactly a target for me to set my sights on. Devlin was out, doing whatever it was he did with the local underworld. Michel was similarly disposed. Mila was…somewhere in the house, probably. Or maybe she’d gone out in search of new sweets. I didn’t really want to hunt her down and, I suspected, she didn’t really want to be found by me.
With nothing concrete to occupy my attention, and absolutely no desire to be alone with my thoughts for any length of time, I turned to my new workstation. I’d gone through the trouble of assembling it and used it for brute number processing, but had otherwise kept it removed from my larger network. There were a few useful, readily available programs that I’d installed, more out of habit than necessity, but nothing that the Mouse could have compromised.
At least, I hoped that he couldn’t. If his skills transcended talented and verged into the realm of supernatural, though, there wasn’t really anything I could do.
I minimized the email program, instead of closing it outright, and double-clicked on a colorful desktop icon labeled Worlds of Wonder. I hadn’t played the game in at least a year and I hadn’t even bothered opening it in about six months. Still, when I loaded up the default configuration of programs, settings, and measures of protection, Worlds of Wonder always seemed to make it to my desktop.
Thankfully, the account that paid for my monthly account was separate from the rest of my extra-illegal accounts. The subscription fee was small enough that I essentially forgot about it from month to month. Without my direct intervention, the account had been drafted at regular intervals and my subscription remained active. I just needed to wait for a few minutes while patches updated before I could log in to the game proper.
There was a new chat function available at the splash page, which reminded me just a little bit of the Community’s room. Of course, there were numerous differences – security, first and foremost, but also the Community’s focus on private chat rooms – but the similarity was enough to send a chill down my spine.
That chill was magnified when a low pitched tone announced a new private message from someone else logged into the game. My heart rate tripled for a few moments before I realized that I hadn’t adjusted my settings to private and that the message had come from a member of my own guild. I could’ve sworn they would have kicked me after my prolonged absence but, at the same time, it was possible that they just hadn’t gotten around to it.
WinterEyes: Waiting for the latest patch?
I weighed the merits of ignoring the question. Ultimately, I decided against being rude for rudeness’ sake.
Lisander: What else? Can’t do anything until this download finishes.
WinterEyes: You didn’t preload the files?
Lisander: Haven’t really had a chance to play the game lately.
WinterEyes: Oh? What’ve you been up to?
Winter’s questions were probably innocent, but my nerves had been frayed to the point of disintegration by revelations in the recent past. There was little possibility that someone could have hunted down my screen name and even less that any interested party would go through the trouble of creating an account of their own for the sole purpose of stalking me into Worlds of Wonder. But, if there was one person who could find me, she would absolutely be willing to go through all of that work simply for effect.
Lisander: I’m surprised that you’re so bad at this.
WinterEyes: What? What are you talking about?
Lisander: You know exactly what I’m talking about.
The chat went quiet for a handful of seconds. When Winter wrote again, I could practically feel the difference in tone, even without the benefit of vocal cues or nonverbal tells.
WinterEyes: What gave me away?
Lisander: Just a little too heavy-handed with the questions. Next time, try to ease into it?
WinterEyes: I’ll keep that in mind. I must admit, I don’t have much experience with this…particular medium.
Lisander: What brings you here this time, then?
WinterEyes: I could hardly communicate with you via our customary channels, now could I?
I blinked, then reminded myself who I was talking to. If the Lady had any defining characteristics, aside from her preternatural timing and impossibly deep closet, it was her ability to know things that she simply should not know.
Lisander: If you already know that, then that makes this a lot easier. Did you know about the Mouse?
WinterEyes: Your friend? No, I didn’t. I was only vaguely aware of Caelum’s previous activities and most of that information was acquired in the recent past.
Lisander: When you realized that we were likely to end up going against him?
Lisander: Do you know anything that might be helpful, at all?
The Lady didn’t respond for a long time. In the background, the patch finished downloading and a bright green button labeled “Play Game” lit up in the center of the screen. I moved it out of the way to focus instead on the conversation. Any desire to waste time gaming had evaporated with the Lady’s first message.
WinterEyes: Nothing salient comes to mind, I’m sorry to say.
Lisander: Nothing? Seriously?
WinterEyes: The Mouse – or should I say Caelum? – has done an exemplary job keeping his activities secret.
It was disheartening to hear that from her own lips, so to speak, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising. The primary benefit to being a hacker, instead of a thief like Devlin, was the inherent difficulty in tracking our movements. With proper planning, I could easily make it seem like there were three or four of me, operating on as many different continents. If I could do that, the Mouse would certainly be able to perform feats much more technically complicated.
At the same time, I did have more to go on than the average person. I’d worked with the Mouse on different projects over the years, probably more closely than anyone else in the Community. With their assistance, I’d be much better equipped to deal with his attacks; with the Lady’s help, though, there was a slim chance that I’d be able to find some sort of pattern. Both were valid avenues to pursue and I saw no reason to limit myself to only one angle of attack.
Lisander: If I told you about the attacks I knew, for sure, he’d been a part of, what could you do with that?
WinterEyes: There are any number of digital intrusions that could be attributed to him, but just as many that might simply be the work of talented copycats. Eliminating false positives could go a long way towards isolating more actionable intelligence.
Lisander: How can I get that information to you? I can’t use your email addresses.
WinterEyes: I know your official addresses; if you could send a list of what you know to one of the addresses I’ve used previously, I’ll know to treat it as an official communique.
While I was relieved to discover that we weren’t completely cut off from our employer, I couldn’t help but experience a sharp spike of irritation. I’d thought that the throwaway addresses I’d used to communicate with the Lady might serve as a connection to her real name. Through them, I’d hoped to follow a trail leading to her front doorstep. If she was comfortable with me using potentially compromised accounts to reach out, then she presumably wasn’t concerned with anyone using those throwaways against her.
Two steps forward. One step back. Or two steps back. I wasn’t really sure.
A thought occurred to me while I mused over which email address to contact her on. I allowed the idea to percolate in my head, turned it around to examine it from different angles, and decided to ask her a personal question. Or, more accurately, as close to a personal question as I thought she might actually answer.
Lisander:How long have you had this account?
WinterEyes: A year, perhaps longer. Is that relevant for some reason?
It wasn’t particularly relevant, except that her answer couldn’t possibly have been true. I’d chosen my screen name based on a hacker character from a Swedish crime novel. Like most of my online sobriquets, it had been a careful choice that meant something to me, but likely wouldn’t mean much to anyone else. The Lady had done similar things throughout our time in her employ and this screen name wasn’t any different.
WinterEyes wasn’t indicative of anything, on its face, but I’d read The Three Musketeers more than once in my life. The female antagonist – if antagonist was the right word, considering the time frame of the novel and the general attitude towards women with agendas of their own – had been Milady de Winter, a spy in the employ of the evil Cardinal. Even if I discounted the connection between this screen name and the fact that the Mouseketeer was our latest adversary, I couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d chosen a name which included the nickname that Devlin had only given her six months ago.
She was lying. I’d caught her in a lie. Granted, it wasn’t a very large lie, and I had no idea why she’d pick this particular non-issue to obfuscate about, but it was still something noteworthy. I made a mental note about the discrepancy and started considering ways that I might be able to use it in the future.
I would have asked her more questions, in an attempt to suss out other areas where the Lady graduated from misleading answers to outright falsehoods, but a knock came from my door at that instant.
“Sarah?” Devlin asked, from the hallway outside of my room.
“One second,” I said.
Lisander: No reason. I’ll get that information to you; you’ll let us know when you find something out?
WinterEyes: If I find something, then yes, of course. I assume you will be dealing with your former friend at some point in the near future?
From the moment I’d realized the Mouse’s double identity as the digital bogeyman Caelum, I’d known that I’d have to deal with him at some point. What I remembered from his previous rampage told me that he was too talented to simply sideline or waylay. Anything short of removing the Mouse from play entirely would only leave me unguarded against a blindside at a later date. As long as I was working for the Lady, I would have to keep an eye out for attacks and traps.
It just sounded so final coming from her. As far as I knew, the Lady hadn’t directly killed anyone before…but, at the same time, I’d spoken to her in person and I didn’t doubt for a second that she was capable of it, should the situation require it. Even Fatima had been willing to take a life – by her own hands, in fact – when pressed into a corner.
I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach for that, though.
Lisander: One way or another, yes.
WinterEyes: Best of luck, then. I will be in touch.
She logged out of the game. A moment later, the character WinterEyes left my guild. I didn’t bother double-checking to see if the character still existed.
“Come in,” I called out as I closed the game and started typing out a list of incidents.
Devlin slipped into the room and closed the door, but he lingered at the entrance long enough that I looked up from my work and raised an eyebrow in his direction.
“How did it go?” Devlin asked.
“How did what go?”
“You and Mila,” he said. “I figured the two of you needed to clear the air about…whatever it is that’s been going on.”
My eyebrow climbed a little steeper. “What do you mean by that?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know exactly what it is. But I can tell that you’re both on edge about something. I was hoping that you’d be able to sort it out if you could have a conversation without worrying about witnesses or anything like that.”
A sharp retort rose to my lips from out of nowhere and I just barely managed to bite it back. I took a deep breath instead and stepped down on the urge to say anything untoward. “Anyway. Did you actually get any work done or were you busy micromanaging my relationships?”
Ooops. I stepped down a little harder on my emotions.
Devlin didn’t react to the tone, even though he’d certainly noticed it. “I didn’t learn anything we couldn’t have figured out on our own. Some of the local heavies were contacted by an anonymous benefactor attempting to purchase their services for a ‘pickup.’ The ones I talked to passed on the business opportunity out of self-preservation, which forced the Mouse to go with less scrupulous hires.”
“As it turns out, there’s a rumor going through the underworld. Not just the one in Atlanta, in fact, but several in Europe and at least two in Asia. People are getting real skittish about working with people they don’t know personally.” Devlin smiled. “It seems that someone is going around disrupting businesses and exposing nefarious criminals and ne’er-do-wells to public scrutiny. It’s had a chilling effect on short-term hires, as you can imagine.”
“Well, at least it isn’t all bad news.”
“Is there bad news I didn’t know about?”
I told him about my brief exchange with the Texan and my somewhat longer talk with the Lady, including the part where she’d lied about her screen name for no discernible reason. He listened patiently, only interjecting once to ask for a point of clarification about how secure my newest workstation was.
By the time I’d finished, Devlin had moved away from the door to lean against a dresser closer to the bed. He uncrossed his arms and ran both hands through his hair as he digested this latest information. “So,” he said finally, “does this mean we’re on our own?”
“As much as we ever are,” I answered. “If the Texan has information we can use to find the rest of the Community, though, then we’ll at least have allies to look forward to hunting down. Temporary allies, at the very best, but it’s better than nothing.”
His marked lack of enthusiasm mirrored my own. I didn’t feel the need to vocalize those thoughts, though, since he so obviously understood them. There was a comfortable familiarity to that, I realized.
Devlin’s phone beeped twice at the same instant that mine vibrated on the desk. I finished the email to the Lady while he checked the incoming message.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Your grandmother,” Devlin said. “She’s got a flight heading to Dallas in about four hours.”
“Already? That was fast.”
“Sometimes, I think you forget what your own last name is. She’s a Ford. If she wanted to get a private jet, she could probably have gotten us out of Atlanta even faster than this.”
I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about my lineage; I’d just grown used to using our finances to purchase low-key flights that wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention. He was right, though. Virginia could have commandeered a plane to take her wherever she wanted at a moment’s notice and few people would have blinked at the expense.
“Will you be ready to go, or should I ask her to look for something later?” Devlin asked.
I looked around at the bedroom. It wasn’t the same room I’d spent so much of my childhood in, but it was damn close. There were no posters on the wall and few clothes in the opened closet. Several pieces of electronic equipment were scattered around the space – some on the bed, a few peripherals on the floor – while my workstation hummed quietly. When that was dissembled into its constituent pieces and packed up, the bedroom would resemble a storage space more than an area where someone had lived, even if only for just a few days.
I wasn’t sure how I should feel about that, but I certainly didn’t feel good.
“I’ll be ready to go,” I said. In a way, I supposed that I already was.